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Friday, Nov 22, 2019

Feeling that unites: Bundesliga’s fan-tastic story

Football clubs in Germany enjoy strong bonds with local communities, which is highlighted by the fact that the country’s top division, Bundesliga, boasts of the highest average attendance in Europe.

football Updated: Oct 08, 2019 08:50 IST
Bhargab Sarmah
Bhargab Sarmah
The 1. FC Koeln fans light a flare during the Bundesliga match between 1. FC Koeln and Borussia Dortmund at RheinEnergieStadion on August 23, 2019 in Cologne, Germany
The 1. FC Koeln fans light a flare during the Bundesliga match between 1. FC Koeln and Borussia Dortmund at RheinEnergieStadion on August 23, 2019 in Cologne, Germany(Bongarts/Getty Images)
         

On one particular day every August, the Cologne Cathedral hosts a unique tradition. The custom has been followed for the past few years —before the season’s first home game, FC Cologne fans get together at the church to pray for a successful season ahead.

On the morning of August 23 this year, around 4,500 people gathered inside this famous monument, located a few hundred yards away from the banks of the Rhine, hours before FC Cologne’s first home game of the Bundesliga. Cologne were hosting Borussia Dortmund, their regional rivals from across the North Rhine-Westphalia province.

This season’s gathering was extra special—FC Cologne were back in top-flight after a season in the second division. Videos of the crowd belting out a stirring rendition of ‘Mer stonn zo dir, FC Kölle’ (‘we stand by you, FC Cologne’), the club anthem, soon went viral on the internet. In the local Kölsch dialect, part of the song roughly translates to ‘FC Kölle’ (Kölsch pronunciation) being ‘a feeling that unites’. It boasts of the club having supporters ‘everywhere’—in Germany and abroad.

The ‘feeling that unites’ was palpable as kick-off approached. Scarf-waving home team fans sang the club anthem inside the almost 50,000-strong Mungersdorfer Stadium; now known as the RheinEnergie Stadium for sponsorship reasons. Led by the Hans Schafer Sudkurve, the stand from where the club’s most vociferous fans watch games, the pre-kick-off tradition seemed more like one being performed by a professional orchestra and not football fans. On this day, there was also a new member in attendance at the club. Hennes IX, the new mascot of the club—a living billy goat—was making his debut at the ground, replacing predecessor Hennes VIII, who had called it a day after an 11-year career. Word is that with age and mounting health problems, the veteran had to make way for a new kid in the block.

But how did a living goat become FC Cologne’s club mascot? “Back in the 1950s, the club received a living male goat as a gift from a local circus. That is how he became the club’s mascot,” explained a club official. The goat was named after former player and manager Hennes Weisweiler; his successors chosen through contests. The fact that FC Cologne are also widely known as ‘The Billy Goats’ underscores how intrinsically the mascot is linked to the club’s identity.

Back at the Mungersdorfer Stadium, proceedings on the pitch didn’t go as planned for FC Cologne. They took a first-half lead but Dortmund came back to win 3-1. The home fans though didn’t lose their voice, singing their team off the pitch after the game. The team huddled and saluted the fans in return, a common practice across the country. Like in a few other German cities, there is a special bond between the club and fans in Cologne. Over the past few decades, the club has become a major part of the city’s identity. “Cologne is a feeling, it says in a famous carnival song. And that’s all the more true for FC Cologne. After suffering six relegations in the last 20 years, the supporters came closer together than ever before,” said Thomas Reinscheid, chief editor of online FC Cologne fanzine effzeh.com.

“The club is more integrated and more present in its city than, I would say, most of the other German clubs. You can’t go even a few metres through Cologne without being reminded that this is FC territory.” FC, pronounced ‘effzeh’ in the Kölsch dialect, is a common reference to the club locally.

MEMBERS’ CLUBS

Like in Cologne, football is an innate part of the German way of life. To understand why German societies share such strong bonds with local football clubs, we need to look back at the traditional structures of these clubs. For a large part of their history, German clubs were organised as local member associations instead of commercial entities. Run and managed by members of the club, the relationship between it and society has always been intimate.

With growing commercialisation, football clubs in the Bundesliga were allowed to be run as corporate bodies in 1998. To stop encroachment into the authority of the club members, no corporate organisation was allowed to acquire majority voting rights. There were exceptions made to what is popularly called the 50+1 rule. The rule allowed an outside entity funding a club for over 20 years to acquire controlling stake. Leverkusen, Wolfsburg and Hoffenheim have been beneficiaries of this exception.

Over the years, however, the sanctity of this rule gradually eroded with a few clubs finding loopholes and circumventing regulations. The most notable in this regard is RB Leipzig, owned and operated by Red Bull. Founded in 2009, the club’s members are all associated with Red Bull. Membership too is not open. With Bundesliga clubs not allowed to have names of brands for the purpose of advertising, Red Bull decided to name its club RasenBallsport Leipzig. RasenBallsport translates to lawn ball sport and the abbreviation of RB Leipzig is a not-so-veiled reference to the name of the owners.

The club’s promotions from the lower depths of the German league structure to the Bundesliga has helped revive the sport in one of its most illustrious east German cities but RB Leipzig have faced hostility from fans across the country. Fans of FC Union Berlin, another east German club that is playing its first Bundesliga season, protested by creating an ‘atmosphere boycott’ —refusing to make any noise—for the first 15 minutes of their game against Leipzig last month.

At their next away game, against Borussia Monchengladbach, Leipzig were welcomed with the banner, “No acceptance for RB!”, and heavily booed by the home fans. The protests are unlikely to perturb Leipzig or prevent further commercialisation. While most Bundesliga clubs remain largely debt-free and in good financial health, the need to attract more investment and compete with the Premier League may significantly alter the economic realities of football in Germany in future.

How that impacts the equation between clubs and fans remains to be seen. For now, however, attendances continue to be robust in Germany’s top-flight. The Bundesliga has topped the average attendance charts in Europe in the last 15 years. It has also managed to maintain an average attendance above 40,000 for each of the last 11 seasons. England’s Premier League, second-best in this parameter, has never reached the 40,000 mark.

SOARING ATTENDANCES

One of the main reasons why the Bundesliga has managed to maintain these figures is low ticket pricing across the league. The cheapest season tickets in the league this season were offered by Bayern Munich and Wolfsburg at €145, while the cheapest in the Premier League stands at approximately €350 at West Ham United. According to a study by German sports business news website Sponsors, the average of the cheapest season tickets offered by each Bundesliga club last season was €178.60 while that of the most expensive ones was €700.30. In comparison, Premier League figures corresponding to the cheapest and most expensive averages for this season are approximately €553 and €1036, respectively.

Matchday ticket prices are also offered at attractive rates in Germany. “The average ticket price in the south stand, popularly known as ‘The Yellow Wall’ is 12 euros. Of course, we could ask for more because the demand is higher. But then we would have change in the audience. It wouldn’t be the Dortmund people attending games, and we want to have more of the Dortmund people in the stadium because in our mind, the intense football experience, the loyalty of the people and the relationship between us and the people, those are the USP of the club,” said Borussia Dortmund managing director Carsten Cramer. To maintain what he calls an ‘intense’ atmosphere on the ground, wifi speeds are reduced when a game kicks off at the club’s home stadium, the Signal Iduna Park.

In terms of the overall revenue, less than 10% of it comes from gate receipts, said Cramer. In recent years, Dortmund have also welcomed fans from the UK, aided by a direct flight between London and Dortmund.

“We have more than a 1,000 people travelling from the UK. We also have a Japanese community travelling from Dusseldorf, especially when Shinji (Kagawa, a former player) was here. But at the end of the day, we don’t want to substitute our audience by others because then it’s not the Dortmund people.”

Steel workers in the city once formed the core support base of Borussia Dortmund, and while it has a far more diverse fan base today, ticket prices have helped maintain the significant working class presence in the stands. It is the same 30km away in Gelsenkirchen, home of FC Schalke. The club is another giant in the North Rhine-Westphalia province. Of the 18 clubs in the top-flight this season, North Rhine-Westphalia is home to seven, the most from a single province.

Like neighbours and bitter rivals Dortmund, Schalke have working class roots. The club traditionally drew its support from the coal miners of Gelsenkirchen. In their initial years, some even played for the club. But coal mines are no longer functional here, the last one shutting down last year.

Over the years, laid-off workers have contributed to Gelsenkirchen being one of the poorest cities in Germany. In 2016, the average annual income in Gelsenkirchen was €16,274, the lowest in the country and almost three-fourths of the-then national average of €21,600. At the same time, its unemployment was the highest in the country at 14.7%, way over the national average of 5.5%.

Given this economic backdrop, the club has become one of the city’s most important institutions, an identity to cling on to for the local community. “For the city of Gelsenkirchen, the club is enormously important. When you go abroad, many people know of FC Schalke 04, but not many have heard of Gelsenkirchen. The city is not rich, but the football is extremely important for the people here,” said Hassan Talib Haji, a Schalke fan for over 30 years.

BONDING PEOPLE

In their first home game of the season, Schalke faced Bayern Munich, unsurprisingly going down 3-0. At the packed Veltins Arena, Schalke’s home ground, most fans were left frustrated by the team’s tame surrender. Bayern fans, seated at the away corner of the stadium, revelled in the comfortable win. For parts of the game, the away corner sang chants targeting the Schalke president, Clemens Tonnies. They also held up large banners against him – “Tonnies – only one of many!” and “Red card for racists!”

The away fans were referring to controversial comments made by Tonnies in August. Speaking to a crowd in Paderborn, Tonnies had called for financing of power plants in Africa instead of raising taxes to fight climate change. “Then the Africans would stop cutting down trees, and they would stop making babies when it gets dark,” he had said.

His comments drew sharp reactions from many sections. In the cup game against Drochtersen/Assel, Schalke fans displayed red placards in the form of red cards with Tonnies’ name in them. But reaction to the incident from the Schalke fans was muted by the time Bayern visited Veltins Arena. “Most of the fans have come out against the statement by Tonnies and called for serious consequences, including resignation, but there are also some who downplay the issue and just care about the football,” said Haji.

Tonnies apologised and escaped punishment from the German football association (DFB). However, in a country where football and politics are closely linked, reactions to Tonnies’ comments have further brought to light fissures in the German society. As testament to the widening divisions across Germany’s political spectrum, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) on September 2 made significant gains in two state elections in eastern Germany, emerging second in both contests. It was a stunning surge for the party in a traditionally leftist bastion and prompted other mainstream parties to immediately rule out any possible coalition with the AfD.

Given the growing political splits, it is football that continues to be one of the few unifying forces in modern-day Germany. As Cramer put it, “Football is the glue of our society. We do have a responsibility to our people because politics and religion are not able to bond people. Football is not only able but seems to be obligated to deliver to the people in this regard.”